Team Wellington have defended their Stirling Sports Premiership title by defeating Auckland City 2-1 in an entertaining final at QBE Stadium in Auckland last night.
The Jose Figueira-coached side, who upset the six-time champions with a late comeback to win the final 4-2 at the same venue last year, earned a hard-fought victory over the minor premiers with two goals from Ben Harris, one at the start of each half.
“It’s always good to score goals but it’s more important to get the win,” Harris said.
“The boys have worked hard all season and they deserve this win. I’d back these boys to the hills and back because they put the hard work in every single week.
“Once we get a method and stick to it then we hurt teams and that’s exactly what happened today.”
Auckland City, who had equalised in the first half through an outstanding Emiliano Tade strike, poured forward in numbers in the final 30 minutes but could not break down a determined Team Wellington defence, keen to prove that last year’s title was no fluke.
Team Wellington had not beaten Auckland City all season – they lost 4-0 in Auckland and 3-1 at David Farrington Park – but saved their best for last in front of a rowdy crowd of 1,113 fans on a gloomy night on Auckland’s North Shore.
The team from the capital got off to the perfect start when Harris continued his great season in front of goal. The forward, who finished second on the Golden Boot standings to strike partner Tom Jackson, was on the end of a perfect cross from Andy Bevin and headed in with composure to open the scoring in the 10th minute.
There was more to come from the defending champions when Bevin tried his luck from halfway with an audacious effort with Auckland City goalkeeper Enaut Zubikarai off his line. The Spanish custodian was beaten all ends up and could only watch as the ball hit the crossbar and bounced clear. It was a huge let off for Auckland City but they could not afford to relax.
Team Wellington came again and Harris could easily have had a double within 17 minutes when he pulled the trigger again from the edge of the area but it was just over the crossbar. As expected, the minor premiers came back into the match and began to control territory and possession.
Striker Ryan De Vries was a constant threat on the right flank for Auckland City but could not combine with his frontmen to convert the half chances. The Navy Blues did manage to get back on level terms in the 27th minute though with a superb solo goal from Tade.
The Argentine collected the ball outside of the box and delivered a scything run before unleashing a great strike to beat goalkeeper Scott Basalaj in the bottom left corner.
Later in the half Basalaj was called on once again when De Vries went into the box and delivered a cheeky chip which looked goal-bound but the keeper was equal to the challenge and tipped the effort over the bar.
Team Wellington countered before the break and had another late chance but Josh Margetts volleyed over the crossbar from the edge of the area.
Heading into the sheds, Team Wellington would have felt a bit short-changed as they had the better of the chances in the opening half.
Auckland City came out and dominated the play in the early exchanges of the second half but De Vries could not convert a couple of chances in the box.
Team Wellington made them pay when Joel Stevens – one of the standout players for the defending champions – delivered a cross to the back post after a short corner. Harris was on hand to hammer home a powerful header to reclaim the lead and silence the vociferous Auckland City supporters momentarily.
Ten minutes later with steady rain now pouring down, Stevens, who scored a screamer in the semi-final thriller against Waitakere United, was close to getting one of his own when he forced a one-handed save from Zubikarai with a shot from outside the area.
Auckland City rallied and Fabrizio Tavano let fly with a shot from long range which had the full attention of Basalaj but went just wide of his left-hand post.
Navy Blues coach Ramon Tribulietx looked to his bench to make an impact and brought on the high-class talent of Joao Moreira and Clayton Lewis to try and find a late equaliser but in the wet conditions Auckland City couldn’t find the fluidity and accuracy when they needed it most.
Coupled with a strong defensive effort from the reigning champions, that enabled Team Wellington to hold on for famous back-to-back titles, matching the feat of Auckland City, who most recently won successive championships in the 2013/14 and 2014/15 seasons.
“It was a monumental effort from the boys tonight and I couldn’t be prouder,” coach Figueira said.
“Scoring early changed the game. It is always a risk to play that way [with a high press] but we are a team who likes to play on the front foot and use our attacking weapons and we caused them some big problems. The early goal helps confidence and I am proud of the boys in the way they went out there and executed the game plan.
“It was a great final to watch with two teams wanting to impose their styles on the game. We are delighted with the fact that we came out on top with that because if you sit back and let Auckland play their game it is going to be a long night. It was a wonderful performance.”